Robin Johnson, Smart City Kids executive assistant and former actor, gives student interview tips from her unique perspective as both an admissions and entertainment industry professional.
When faced with an authority figure who holds the key to the door you desperately want to pass through, it can be tempting to mold yourself into the person you think that authority figure is looking for. That’s how student admissions interviews and auditions are the alike: Students and actors sometimes want access into the school or artistic project of their dreams so badly that they abandon their authentic selves in the process. The irony is that being your authentic self is a surefire way to gain admission into the school that’s the best fit for you (and to book the gig!).
Here’s an example. When I first graduated college, I auditioned for a Shakespeare play. I chose a monologue from Henry V in which a powerful prince gives a rousing pep talk to his soldiers in the trenches of war. I performed the piece with gusto, and I thought it went well! The casting director looked confused. “Why did YOU choose THAT speech,” he asked, judgmentally. If you and I haven’t yet met, you should know that I am petite woman with a gentle voice, and ten years ago I gave off more of a “Disney princess” vibe than an “army commander” vibe. I explained to him all of the reasons I loved this speech, but I could tell he still wasn’t sold. I never heard back from the theater company.
Later that day, I auditioned for a different Shakespeare play with the very same battle cry monologue. The second casting director loved it! She appreciated that I made old language feel fresh, challenged gender stereotypes, and asserted power in my own, unique way. I was cast in a lead role, and I ended up working on five more plays with this theater company over the years, as both an actor and director. I made lifelong friends with the people I met there, even serving as a bridesmaid in one of the other actor’s weddings.
The moral of the story? Being true to yourself leads you to where you truly belong.
But being authentic doesn’t mean improvising! I rehearsed that monologue many times before I auditioned with it. So how can you prepare for admissions interviews and remain true to yourself? Below are some tips.
- Pick a “costume” you love
- It’s important to “dress up” a bit formally for these interviews, but you also want to prioritize your comfort. After all, you can’t have an interesting conversation with an admissions director if your dress shoes are so stiff that they hurt your toes, or if your sleeves are so long that they reach your fingers! Make sure you feel comfortable sitting, standing, and moving in whatever you decide to wear. I also recommend that you select at least one item from your wardrobe that you truly love. For instance, if red is your favorite color, wear a red shirt for confidence. When I was auditioning regularly, I would always wear a piece of jewelry that had belonged to my grandma, and it felt like I was taking her into the scary room with me.
- Manners Matter
- A casting director friend of mine was once taking a break during a long day of auditions, relaxing in the lobby outside of the audition room. While sitting in the lobby, she looked like just another actor, not necessarily like the casting director. While unintentionally “in disguise,” she overheard an actor being incredibly rude to the receptionist. When it was time for that actor to audition for her, my friend already knew she didn’t want to work with them – no matter how talented they were, they were not kind! The moral of this story is to be kind to everyone you meet on these interviews. Shake hands, make eye contact, smile, and introduce yourself to everyone. It doesn’t matter who you’re meeting – everyone matters, and you never know who is watching!
- Get Specific
- Be honest about your interests and be prepared to back them up with specific examples. When the first casting director questioned why I’d chosen the monologue I did, I didn’t flippantly reply “cause its good.” No! I explained my personal connection to the play, and all the emotions that the speech made me feel. Similarly, you must be prepared to share specific examples about your passions. If you love soccer, investigate what exactly you love about it. Do you love the structure that soccer practice provides in your day? Do you love being a part of a team? Or maybe you’re super competitive, and you enjoy pushing yourself to improve your skills and win games. Be prepared to provide examples. The magic is in the details!
- Nervous? Try a grounding technique
- Actors spend a lot of time doing breathing exercises and stretches that help with relaxation and grounding. After all, performing in front of a large crowd every night is nerve-racking even for seasoned Broadway stars! If you feel yourself getting nervous before your interview, practice this simple technique: Imagine that there’s a deflated balloon in your belly. Slowly inhale while counting to three and imagine that balloon filling up, up, up with air. Then exhale slowly while counting to three and imagine the balloon deflating again. Do this three times, and you should feel your nerves disappear. And if you feel nervous during the interview itself? Take one deep breath and put both feet on the floor. Really try to feel the ground underneath your feet and remember that the floor is there to support you if you fall.
- Remember that they’re rooting for you!
- Ultimately, school admissions directors love kids, which is why they do the work that they do. Similarly, casting directors love actors. Admissions directors and casting directors alike want the folks they meet to succeed in their interviews or auditions! They may seem like scary gatekeepers, but they’re eager to support you, to listen, to get to know your authentic self, and to help discern if you are the right fit for their school or artistic project. So, if you really can’t shake the nerves, just remember – everyone you meet in these interviews works in a school for a reason, and that reason is to champion kids like you!